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ARTICLE ID 28186

$________ - WRONGFUL DEATH - PRODUCTS LIABILITY - NEGLIGENCE - HELICOPTER CRASH.

Los Angeles County, California

This was a death action arising from the crash of Bell 214B1 logging helicopter, N214CR, at Dora Bay, Alaska on February 19, ________. The decedents, Bill Fife, age 49, and Joe Cook, age 41, were the flight crew of the aircraft which requires two pilots for external load and logging operations. The plaintiffs brought suit against the defendant manufacturer of the helicopter on products liability theories of defective design and manufacture, as well as failure to warn.

The defendant CRI Helicopters, the owner of the aircraft, was conducting Part ________ logging operations in California and Alaska at the time of the accident. As the aircraft was hovering over the log drop zone, touching down the load of two logs, the right cyclic actuator separated due to a fatigue failure at the point of attachment of the right cyclic actuator to the swashplate of the main rotors. The part that fractured was the "rod end attachment," called the "lollipop" because of its appearance. The helicopter dove to the ground, crashing nose first and upside down, killing both pilots. p 7 3 The jury heard expert testimony that the right cyclic actuator acts in combination with the left cyclic and collective actuators to translate pilot cyclic and collective control inputs through the swashplate into movements of the main rotor disk for flight maneuvers. The actuators are hydraulically boosted to enable the pilot to tilt the main rotor disk easily, much like power steering in an automobile. Hydraulic boosting is necessary because each main rotor is fifty feet long and the rotor assembly weighs in excess of ________ pounds, so without boosting, the pilot could not make control inputs.

Flying a helicopter with a broken actuator is akin to trying to sit on a three-legged stool after removing one of the legs, according to the expert testimony offered. After the in-flight fracture, the pilots had no control over the rotor disc on the right side which, due to flight dynamics, caused the nose to pitch down and roll to the right. To correct, the pilot would input left cyclic, but the helicopter would not react. The pilot would then to be able to apply right cyclic against the weight of the rotor assembly, making the aircraft unrecoverable.

In examining the Fife/Cook wreckage, the NTSB determined that the fatigue failure of the piston rod was attributable to a worn bearing and bushings located in a housing providing a pivot point at the base of the 26-inch long actuator. The actuators for this type of aircraft are unusual because they must deflect through a six degree pivot about the bearing during flight, imposing bending loads along the length of the actuator. Despite this unusual application, the defendants Bell/H.R. Textron never tested the actuators for any bending loads on the part to examine this full cone of operation, choosing to fatigue test the actuators solely in an axial (i.e. straight up and down) position. Pre-certification testing resulted in a fatigue failure at the exact same location as the failure which caused the death of the decedents. This failure was never explained or further investigated by Bell/H.R. Textron, according to the evidence offered.

The defendant Bell denied any problems in the field with the actuator bearing or the bushings, or any cracking of the rod end ("lollipop") attachment. Experienced actuator repair personnel, however, were called by the plaintiffs and testified that the bushings in this aircraft frequently wear out and very few ever reach the ________ hour life that Bell claims. The plaintiffs offered evidence that in fact, field experience indicated that the bushings and bearing will often last less than ________ hours since the housing which contains the bushings and bearings is sensitive to contamination and frequently require replacement long before ________ hours. Fortunately, the actuator hydraulic seals tend to leak, requiring frequent removal and repair, so outright failure is unusual since accelerated wear on the bushings or bearing is fortuitously discovered and remedied. Most importantly, the repair personnel testified about cracks detected in the rod end, which the defendant Bell contended was impossible to occur.

Further complicating the aircraft’s flight path following the actuator failure was a "hang up" of the load. The long line is carried by the helicopter on the load beam of the belly cargo hook. The long line then hangs down to a remove hook which holds p 7 3 the logs. This hang up occurred as the helicopter began pitching and rolling in response to the actuator failure. The pilot dumped the load and the load beam released and pointed downward, which should have allowed the long line to slide off. The line did not release, due to the hang up, since the thimble of the eye of the long line mechanically jammed on the opening load beam and did not come off until just prior to impact, as reported by one eyewitness.

The Bell CS-80 cargo hook was subcontracted through Breeze Eastern and had a history of hang up problems. Bell became aware of this problems in ________, but delayed until after this accident before issuing a Service Bulletin requiring placement of a decal warning operators to use a specific size load ring. Bell’s original ________ specification of the cargo hook called out the use of this specific ring, but operators were not advised of this requirement until after the accident.

The defendant Bell blamed the crash on "bad piloting and bad maintenance." With regards to the piloting, the defendant Bell claimed that the load was not dropped because the pilots forgot to dump the load. The plaintiffs countered that the decedents were experienced pilots who would not have forgotten to dump the load. The evidence indicated that Bill Fife had ________ hours with substantial logging time and Joe Cook had ________ hours, much of it logging, and was also an FAA certified helicopter mechanic.

Secondly, the defendant criticized the pilots for not dropping the helicopter straight down on the log dump zone in a hovering autorotation, rather than attempt to fly the aircraft. The plaintiff countered that in making this assertion, the defendant failed to consider that five to six workers were below the helicopter and that such a maneuver might have significantly increased the death toll.

The defendant additionally argued pilot misconduct based upon the evidence indicating that one of the pilots had a trace of marijuana metabolite in his blood and urine. The FAA lab found 20 nanograms of marijuana metabolite in the blood. The marijuana "carryover" according to Bell caused the affected pilot to forget emergency procedures. The defense experts readily agreed, however, that the metabolite gives no psycho-motor affect and that one nanogram is so small that only the most sophisticated equipment can barely detect it. The defendant’s marijuana expert conceded that this level would easily be consistent with secondhand smoke, inhaled as much as 24 hours before the accident.

The defendant further maintained that the aircraft’s mechanics were negligent in failing to adjust the actuator correctly in the field and for failing to recognize the deteriorating condition of the bearing in the housing. The plaintiff countered that bushings and bearing are impossible to inspect visually, despite FAR 29.________ specifications for a "close" examination of flight critical components. The actuators can be "inspected" only by measuring friction levels, according to the plaintiff’s experts who testified that the positioning of the actuator of the transmission mast prevents testing through the range of travel actually seen by the actuator in flight, so the test was, in reality, meaningless. p 7 3 The defendant also claimed that after the accident, a Bell engineer reconstructed and inspected the original actuator, determining that it was out of the proper friction range. The defendant, however, did not produce the employee who performed the inspection at trial and later returned the actuator in a cleaned and disassembled condition, so that tests could not be duplicated by plaintiff’s experts.

The plaintiffs were Diana Fife, widow of William Fife, and his two children, ages 26 and 17. The heirs of Joe Cook were his wife and their three minor children, ages, 15, 11 and 5. The plaintiffs’ damages claim included economic specials for Joe Cook in the amount of $________ (future wage loss) and for William Fife in the amount of $________ (future wage loss). CRI Helicopter, the owner of the aircraft, cross-claimed for the loss of $1.5 to $1.8 million for N214CR.

Settlement discussions were as follows: The plaintiffs demanded $________ for the Cook case and $________ for the Fife case.

The defendants refused to discuss settlement. The jury found the defendant manufacturer liable both on theories of strict products liability and negligence and awarded the plaintiffs Fife $________, including $________ in economic damages and $________ in non-economic damages. The jury awarded the plaintiffs Cook $________, including $________ in economic damages and $________ in non-economic damages. The jury additionally awarded cross-complainant CRI Helicopters $________ for the loss of the helicopter.

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